Puzzled by Malagasy

While I don’t feel that six weeks are enough time to learn Malagasy to any reasonable standard, especially as I am unlikely to visit this remote place again, I’ve been interested enough in the language to pick up a few phrases here and there. I had expected pronunciation to be straightforward, since at least those Austronesian languages that are most well know do not have large phoneme inventories. However, I very quickly discovered that Malagasy has a perverse orthography.

  • The letter 〈o〉 is actually /u/. For the vowel /o/, the letters 〈oa〉, originally representing a diphthong, are used instead.
  • All final vowels are silent. I first heard this in practice as the plane was descending into Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo and the pilot repeatedly said [antananariv]. Also note the French spelling of the city’s name during the colonial era: Tananarive.
  • The loss of final vowels nonetheless has ramifications for the preceding consonants that are now final. The phrase tsy misy ‘I have nothing’ (used for troublesome beggars), is at least in some dialects [tsi miʃ], a palatalization that is not surprising. More suprising is what seems to be velarization before a lost /u/: I hear rano ‘water’ as [raŋ].
  • Defeating the simple CV(C) syllable structure that I naïvely expected from an Austronesian language, there are daunting consonant clusters caused by the loss of final and word-internal vowels at the same time. As the honorific particle tompoko, added to the end of any sentence where one wants to show respect to the listener, ends in the enclitic ending -ko, stress is cast to the original antepenult. This means that not only is the final vowel lost as always, but the vowel of the penult is lost by syncope, resulting in [tumpk] with a three-consonant final cluster.
  • The consonant /h/ cannot stand word-finally, so the loss of the final vowel preceded by /h/ results in the loss of the /h/ as well: akoho ‘chicken’ is prononced [ako].

Malagasy is covered in Routledge’s relatively new entry in the Language Family Surveys series, The Austronesian Languages of Madagascar and Asia and I wish I could have managed to read that before coming to Madagascar. Once I get back to my university library, I want to read more on the diachrony of this language and the motivations of those who created the first Latin-alphabet writing system for it.